Part 1: A Long Overdue Tattoo-Exhibit Critique
I so very much wanted to be able to write a positive review of the Field Museum of Chicago’s version of the tattoo exhibition that was put together by the Musée du quai Branly in Paris. I wish I could write something like: “As a scientific institution with a long history of supporting scholarship, the Field Museum diligently corrected the content mistakes of the original Tatoueurs, Tatoués show.” But instead I have to write: “The Field Museum’s new tattoo exhibition, while beautiful on the surface, is as fatally flawed as the previous two iterations of a show that should never have been allowed to travel to world-class institutions.”
I’ll frontload a quick tl;dr abstract of my criticisms:
- There are numerous content errors throughout the exhibition, particularly in the way “Western” tattooing is contextualized.
- The notion of “Tattooing in the West” as separated out from “global” or “non-Western” indigenous tattooing is a dated and unnecessarily dichotomous concept that smacks of colonialism and a hierarchical approach to studying culture.
- Many of the images in the show—images presented as artifacts, not as supplementary material—are reproductions rather than originals, when originals would have been easy enough to borrow. That many of these reproductions were sourced from photography clearing houses seems scandalous from a museum-academic standpoint; this is the same material that anyone with internet access can find with a few keywords.
- The show privileges design aesthetics over substance to provide “experience” rather than any substantive education.
- Poor curatorial choices resulted in some artifacts that are only tangentially related to tattooing (with no good explanation as to why they were included) and other artifacts that pale in comparison to superior examples readily available to borrow from multiple public and/or private collections.
- Women’s tattoo history is barely present in this exhibition; where it exists, it’s often treated voyeuristically. (Hat tip to my colleague Kimberly Baltzer-Jaray who noticed this when we were visiting the Toronto version of the show together.)
I’m not quite sure how tattooing “made its way to Europe” on the skin of sailors and adventurers when it had been present in Europe since circa 3300 BCE–long before people sailed or adventured, just one of several errors in this introductory panel to the “West” section.
I always get a cheap thrill when I notice a tattoo motif referenced in two different historical academic publications. It makes me think of issues that range from shared scholarship to lazy research to plagiarism and that things are not that much different today as compared to years, even centuries ago.
My recent post on Tattoo History Daily of Havelock Ellis’s image-quoting of part of a Cesare Lombroso plate caused me to look deeply at Lombroso’s original plate. And I realized that the motto written across the central figure’s chest was one that I had posted many months back from Lombroso’s contemporary Alexandre Lacassagne. Here are the two images:
(Lacassagne, Les tatouages étude anthropologique et médico-légale, 1881. Translation: “The past betrayed me, The present torments me, The future terrifies me”)
(Lombroso, L’uomo delinquente, 5th edition 1897, originally published 1876. Translation: “The past torments me, the present ?s me, the future terrifies me.”)
The quote differs slightly from Lacassagne to Lombroso, and that makes me wonder if both researchers were observing the same person, but one of the researchers just transcribed the motto wrong (or wasn’t paying proper attention to his sketches when drafting the drawings after the fact). It’s patently clear that these criminologists’ research findings were so problematically skewed because they were working with such specific populations (incarcerated or otherwise institutionalized men), but if they were working with such a limited group that both the Italian Lombroso and the French Lacassagne had to seek out the same man, their conclusions become even more appalling. The entire lingering stigma that tattoos are deeply connected to criminality and deviance comes from the writings of these criminologists, who patently ignored or dismissed the vast practice of tattooing going on on non-criminal bodies at the time.
I’ve always been fascinated by the late 19th century criminology texts that try to decipher the mystery of why some people become criminals and others don’t…and then ascribe certain physical markers to be symbols of that criminality—visual cues then deployed as predictors of criminal behavior. Tattoos became one of these supposed indicators, and a wealth of books and journal articles devoted pages to trying to read deviant meaning into the images inscribed on incarcerated people (as well as the shapes and sizes of their heads, the character of their facial features, the proportions of their limbs, and all sorts of other ridiculous body measurements and surveillances based on the eugenistic pseudosciences of things like phrenology, craniometry, etc.).
(The chest and arms of “C. L.”, a 23-year-old robber and drunk.)
There’s a major problem, of course. When one is only studying tattoos on incarcerated populations, and not at the same time studying tattoos on non-incarcerated populations, one’s perceptions get easily skewed toward tattoos being markers of deviance. Continue reading